HOMILY for the Martyrs of Korea
“Since you have abandoned the beautiful customs and ritual of your country and accepted the treacherous ways of the foreigner, even if you were put to death ten thousand times, would the punishment not be too light?”
These were the words of officials interrogating some of the 8000 and more Christians who suffered persecution in Korea in the 18th and 19th centuries. And today we honour 103 of them whom Pope Blessed John Paul II canonized in 1984. St Andrew Kim Taegon was the first Korean priest, beheaded by the State in 1846 at the age of 25.
We can, perhaps, understand the incomprehension of the Korean officials. What could induce their fellow Koreans to abandon their ancient customs and religious traditions to follow a foreign belief? Indeed, why would any of us, even today, abandon one way of life to follow Christ and his Way? Around the world, Christians everywhere from Iraq to China, from Pakistan to Nigeria suffer persecution and death for their Christian Faith. Indeed, independent research has shown that Christianity is the “most persecuted” religion on earth, with an estimated 150 000 Christians killed each year for their Faith, and some 200-230 million under threat of murder, beating, imprisonment and torture. What is it that compels our brothers and sisters in Christ to endure these things for the Faith?
Truth. Ultimately, the only thing worth living and dying for is Truth, and the measure of sacrifice that we’re willing to endure for it shows just how much we value Truth. St Paul, in today’s reading, appeals to the Corinthians, and so, to us who have heard and believed the Gospel; who are firmly established in the Truth of Christ’s life, death and, most importantly, his resurrection. This Truth, if we truly believe it to be true, changes one’s entire life and worldview.
So, at the very least, our Christian faith will involve sacrifices and painful choices as we abandon a certain way of thinking and behaving, and allow our minds and wills to be formed and shaped by Christ and his teaching as taught by Christ’s Church. The martyrs, who paid the highest price – their own lives – bear witness to this sacrifice for Truth most eloquently, and by their blood, they testify to their firm belief that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life; they bear witness to their faith in his resurrection. As St Kim Rosa said: “A long time ago I decided to shed my blood for these truths”.
The term ‘martyr’ is often abused today when it is used of those who use violence to further their cause. This is not what a Christian martyr is, and not at all what the Korean martyrs did. As St Agatha Kim A-gi said simply: “I don’t know anything but Jesus and Mary”, and she clung to them with a child-like trust, refusing to reject our Lord. So, the one who witnesses to Christ is one who embraces him and his Cross, the non-violent Way of Love. And Love is the martyrdom each Christian is called to choose.
It was Tertullian in the 2nd-century who said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, and this is alluded to in our Collect today. For the Korean Martyrs’ courage and faith was not in vain but gave inspiration and encouragement to the Church in Korea, making it one of the most vibrant parts of the Catholic Church. It has experienced 70% growth in the last decade, and Catholics currently make up 11% of the population. May the example of these Korean Martyrs also revitalize our faith, so that, by God’s grace, our local Church will also flourish.
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